STUDY: TV Media Covered Biden's Smile Nearly Twice As Much As Climate Change

Climate change was almost entirely absent from the political discourse this election season, receiving less than an hour of TV coverage over three months from the major cable and broadcast networks excluding MSNBC. By contrast, those outlets devoted nearly twice as much coverage to Vice President Joe Biden's demeanor during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan. When climate change was addressed, print and TV media outlets often failed to note the scientific consensus or speak to scientists.

TV Media Covered Biden's Smile In VP Debate More Than Climate Change

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TV Media Excluding MSNBC Covered Biden's Smile Nearly Twice As Much As Climate Change. Since August 1, the major cable and broadcast networks have spent just over three and a half hours discussing climate change in the context of the presidential election. But this was largely driven by MSNBC, which spent over two and a half hours on climate change -- more than three times as much as the other networks combined. Outside of MSNBC, TV networks spent 51 minutes (rounded to the nearest minute) discussing climate change. By contrast, those outlets spent over an hour and a half discussing how much Biden smiled or laughed during the vice presidential debate.

ABC, NBC And Fox Virtually Ignored Climate Change. In total, the three major broadcast networks spent just 15 minutes discussing climate change in the context of the election. The bulk of this coverage -- over 11 minutes -- was on CBS, which dedicated three separate segments to climate change and the election. ABC and NBC did not air a single segment on climate change in the context of the election. Fox News mentioned climate change 19 times for a total of just 13 minutes of election coverage -- the least among the major cable networks.

Coverage Of Climate Change Prior To Hurricane Sandy Was Nearly Non-Existent. Before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, sparking a national conversation about the impact of climate change on certain extreme weather events, the major TV networks largely ignored the topic in the context of the election even though it was relevant at several points. On August 22, Romney released his energy plan which completely ignored climate change. On August 30, Romney's joke about “rising oceans” at the Republican National Convention was widely seen as the standout moment of his speech, and Obama responded in his speech at the Democratic National Convention that the effects of climate change are not a “joke.” Yet the subsequent presidential debates did not once mention climate change. The broadcast networks covered climate change in relation to the presidential candidates for only 3 minutes before October 29, and CNN and Fox News covered it for less than 22 minutes total. Similarly, more than 20 percent of print election-related climate items came after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed President Barack Obama, citing his stance on climate change in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

State Newspapers Largely Overlooked Climate Change In Election Coverage. The six major national print outlets mentioned climate change 107 times since August 1, but 8 major state papers selected based on their states' high capacity for solar and/or wind power covered it only 26 times. The Arizona Republic never once mentioned climate change in its election coverage.

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Media Often Allowed The Right To Sow False Doubt Over Climate Science 

More Than 6 In 10 Print Articles Failed To Counter False Doubt Over Climate Science. Sixty-three percent of print coverage featuring Mitt Romney or others casting doubt on climate science failed to explicitly or implicitly acknowledge the scientific consensus that manmade climate change is occurring.

Seven Outlets Never Mentioned The Scientific Consensus. NBC, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Denver Post, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay Times and the Dallas Morning News never mentioned the scientific consensus in their election-related climate coverage. 

Fox News Repeatedly Laughed Off The Threat Of Climate Change. Fox News covered climate change the least among cable networks, and much of its coverage questioned, mocked or downplayed this threat. In August, for example, Ann Coulter suggested on Fox that the effects of climate change won't be felt for “one thousand years.” In October, The O'Reilly Factor's Jesse Watters asked a voter which issues she would like to hear the candidates address at the upcoming presidential debate. When she listed global warming, he retorted that “it's really cold right now.” And later that month, the cast of The Five mocked those who argued that climate change should be addressed at the last debate. [Fox News, Special Coverage of the Republican National Convention, 8/31/12, via Nexis] [Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor, 10/16/12, via Nexis] [Fox News, The Five, 10/22/12]

Broadcast Networks And Local Papers Ignored Romney's Flip-Flop On Climate Change. MSNBC and CNN were the only TV networks to note that Romney's stance on climate change seems to have shifted since he accepted the science as Governor of Massachusetts. In October 2011 during the Republican primary race, Romney stated, “My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet.” MSNBC pointed this out in 20 percent of its coverage; CNN mentioned it only once. Among print outlets, the San Jose Mercury News, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News and the St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay Times did not mention Romney's flip-flop. [YouTube, 10/28/11]

Media Failed To Quote Experts In Discussions Of Climate Change

Several Outlets Did Not Interview A Single Scientist. In election coverage of climate change, media outlets often turned to politicians and journalists rather than scientists. Scientists made up less than 6 percent of TV guests and just 5 percent of those quoted by print outlets on climate change in the context of the election. ABC, NBC, Fox News, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, San Jose Mercury News, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News and the St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay Times, and the Des Moines Register did not interview or quote a single scientist on climate change.

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Our results are based on a search of Nexis, Factiva and internal TV databases for any mention of climate change in the context of the presidential election between August 1, 2012 and November 6, 2012. We searched Nexis and Factiva for "(climate change or global warming) w/100 (Obama or Romney)" and searched internal TV databases for “climate change” and “global warming” for election-related coverage. Timestamps were acquired from Media Matters' internal video archives.

Our analysis includes the three major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), the three major cable networks (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News), six national print outlets (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post), and eight state newspapers (Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Des Moines Register, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Miami Herald, Arizona Republic, San Jose Mercury News, St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay Times).

Coverage of Biden's smile was measured based on a search of Nexis for “biden w/50 (smil! or laugh! or joke or body language or rude or drunk or drinking or chuckl! or smirk!)”. Daytime shows for Fox News are not included in Nexis and were not included in the Biden totals, but they were included in the climate change totals.

Media Matters interns Alessandra DiMonda and Brian Rabitz contributed to this report. Graphics were created by Drew Gardner.